In just his seventh council meeting as a new Alderman Preston Lewis took on one of the biggest issues the whole city of Maumelle had been discussing for years, rallied the troops and garnered a unanimous vote on his resolution to encourage Maumelle to break away from the much larger Pulaski County Special District and create it’s own Maumelle district.
There was opposition — mostly from people representing an organization that could be negatively impacted by a new school district.
One was Luke Ribich, treasurer of the state’s first charter school, Academics Plus. He argued the charter school was partnered with the city from its meager beginnings and the city ought to get behind the charter school and lobby the state education department to allow them to expand their cap from a total enrollment of around 650 to allow more Maumelle students to attend the school.
Ribich noted a Plus’ turn around from a board that often disagreed with itself and had financial problems to one of harmony and money in the bank.
However, one alderman noted that not a single person opposed the new elementary school the charter school opened last year — at least publicly to the point of lobbying against it.
A Plus president Jess Sweere was in the audience but didn’t speak.
In a detailed presentation Lewis outlined the steps the city would need to take to become an independent school district. He acknowledged it wouldn’t be easy but had an answer for every naysayer speaking against it.
He said Maumelle has the second highest property values in the state and outlined how those property values along with state turn-back per pupil and other resources would give a new Maumelle district more operating income than most similar sized districts in Central Arkansas.
Probably the most controversial aspect of the presentation was the letter grade Lewis assigned to each school in and around Maumelle. He acknowledged his assessment was arbitrary and subject to dispute but also said it was based upon real figures from each school on how students were doing on standardized tests.
Pine Forest Elementary — the jewel of elementary schools for decades, received an A score. He said 536 students from zip code 72113 attend Pine Forest.
Crystal Hill Elementary, which he suggested remain with the county district to reduce Maumelle Boulevard traffic, got a B+. This school has 569 from the 72113 Zip code, according to figures Lewis said he obtained from the Arkansas Department of Education.
Maumelle Middle School — once touted as the best middle school in the state under previous leadership, received a D+ for its poor performance to a loud moan from many audience members. This junior high school as many audience members still call it has 884 total students with 607 from that same Maumelle zip code.
He cited an eighth grade math aggregate score of 66 percent for the school three points behind a state average for all middle schools of 69 percent. Literature scores were better, Lewis said with the school just lacking one point behind the state average of 81 percent but in Science, seventh graders there only scored 24 percent proficient compared to a state average of 42 percent.
The brand new Maumelle High School, barely two years old received an F failing grade from Lewis. He said Maumelle’s high school literacy scores were 61 percent just seven percent off the state mark of 68. In high school Algebra, Lewis said the state average is 79 percent while the Maumelle school’s is only 60 percent.
Lewis blamed the low-test scores on school and district leadership.
Of Maumelle’s students, 58 percent attend PCSSD schools, 16 percent attend costly private schools, 12 percent attend the public charter school, neighboring cities of North Little Rock and Little Rock get 4 percent and other schools get ten percent.
By contrast Cabot schools get 80 percent of Cabot students, Lewis said.
A town of 17,039 deserves its own school district Lewis said if for no other reason than to diminish cars on the Boulevard. He estimated that Maumelle students attending other schools add 3,000 vehicles into the Maumelle Boulevard traffic mix.
Lewis said Maumelle’s personal property tax rate of 0.0407, one of the state’s highest, on Maumelle’s average home value of $205,000 resulted in most homeowners paying $1, 668 each year in personal property taxes on their homes alone — not counting vehicles and personal belongings.
He estimated those taxes alone would generate around $14 million a year for a new Maumelle only school district.
The only real item to come out of the resolution adopted would be a feasibility study. Mayor Mike Watson said no city funds would be spent on that and the group founded to promote the separate district would be responsible for raising that money. He said Jacksonville has done at least two such studies and it should be easy to accomplish.
Unlike Jacksonville that has languished in the larger district for nearly two decades after starting the push for a new district, Lewis said he thought Maumelle could have its own district in four to five years.
The biggest obstacle he said is the federal desegregation lawsuit.
Former board president and Maumelle’s last board member Tim Clark said he supported this effort but cautioned the group to walk softly around the federal issues and especially giving difference to the federal judges who’ve been involved in the thirty-year old case.
Lewis also mentioned Maumelle’s not acquiring the rest of Maumelle Boulevard from the current city limits to the I-430 interchange when he said, “Let’s not make that same mistake.”
Former Mayor Burch Johnson who was involved in some of those battles over Boulevard property said about the new district, “Best money Maumelle could ever spend.” He said he was referring to the campaign to separate.
When the resolution was unanimously adopted the crow burst out in cheers and applause and Watson ordered a five-minute break to allow school supporters to exit the room.
Look for a detailed copy of Lewis presentation on our Maumelle Monitor Website this week at Maumelle Monitor.com.